A New Republican Governor

By Jim Ellis

Aug. 7, 2017 — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made national news the other night at President Trump’s rally in Huntington, WV, when the Democratic state chief executive took the stage to announce that he is switching to the Republican Party.

When addressing the Trump rally, Justice said, “like it or not, but the Democrats walked away from me … West Virginia, I can’t help you anymore by being a Democratic governor.”

The move now gives Republicans control of the entire West Virginia governmental apparatus, owning both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s office. Factoring Justice’s party change, the GOP holds the West Virginia chief executive post for the first time since Gov. Arch Moore (R) was defeated for re-election in 1988. There are now 26 states where Republicans control the legislature and governor’s office, including Nebraska where the legislature only has one ostensibly non-partisan legislative chamber but is clearly overwhelmingly Republican. In contrast, Democrats have full power in only five states.

The development means the Democrats drop to holding just 15 governors, an all-time low number for the party. Republicans, on the other hand, reach their historical apex with 34 governors as party members. The 50th governor, Bill Walker of Alaska, is an Independent.

But, the cumulative number does not have a particularly great effect upon national politics, except in one area at the end of each decade. The governors elected beginning this year, at least in Virginia, will hold the redistricting veto pen. Most 2018 winners will be the governor of record when the 2021 redistricting legislation will require the chief executive’s signature.

Thirty-eight governors will be elected in the 2017-18 election cycle, but six, including the New Jersey governor to be elected later this year, will have no say in the congressional redistricting process because either a citizens or legislative commission is empowered with mapping authority.

The key states will be the larger ones, particularly those gaining or losing congressional seats. This means the open races in Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Georgia, and Virginia are of the greatest importance. The California congressional delegation may grow or remain constant, but there is little doubt that the governorship will remain in Democratic hands even in an open situation. Smaller open states such as Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota, and New Mexico are also of significance from a redistricting perspective.

Republicans will have a large stake in protecting Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to obtain at least some redistricting influence in that state, since Democrats are a sure bet to retain control in both the state House and Senate. The same is true for Gov. Larry Hogan in Maryland. Wisconsin is another critical redistricting state for Republicans, hence re-electing Gov. Scott Walker is high on the 2018 party priority list. Obviously, keeping Gov. Greg Abbott in Texas will matter greatly to the GOP’s national redistricting standing, and he is in strong shape to win a second term.

The situation is equally as critical for Democrats to re-elect Gov. Tom Wolf in Pennsylvania, particularly if the congressional redistricting lawsuit forces a re-draw before the 2018 election. Ironically, last year’s victory in North Carolina for Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won’t do his party much good even though the Tar Heel State is sure to gain at least one new seat. That state’s governor has limited veto power and none over redistricting legislation.

Ironically, West Virginia will factor into the 2021 redistricting picture, but the Governor’s political party won’t have much influence upon what happens. It is highly likely the state will lose one of its three seats, but Republicans now hold all three positions so it is clear they will take a one-seat loss regardless of who controls the political apparatus.

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